New evidence for a human magnetic sense that lets your brain detect the Earth’s magnetic field

Do you have a magnetic compass in your head?

Do human beings have a magnetic sense? Biologists know other animals do. They think it helps creatures including bees, turtles and birds navigate through the world.


Scientists have tried to investigate whether humans belong on the list of magnetically sensitive organisms. For decades, there's been a back-and-forth between positive reports and failures to demonstrate the trait in people, with seemingly endless controversy.

The mixed results in people may be due to the fact that virtually all past studies relied on behavioral decisions from the participants. If human beings do possess a magnetic sense, daily experience suggests that it would be very weak or deeply subconscious. Such faint impressions could easily be misinterpreted – or just plain missed – when trying to make decisions.

So our research group – including a geophysical biologist, a cognitive neuroscientist and a neuroengineer – took another approach. What we found arguably provides the first concrete neuroscientific evidence that humans do have a geomagnetic sense.

How does a biological geomagnetic sense work?

Life on Earth is exposed to the planet's ever-present geomagnetic field that varies in intensity and direction across the planetary surface. Nasky/Shutterstock.com

The Earth is surrounded by a magnetic field, generated by the movement of the planet's liquid core. It's why a magnetic compass points north. At Earth's surface, this magnetic field is fairly weak, about 100 times weaker than that of a refrigerator magnet.

Over the past 50 years or so, scientists have shown that hundreds of organisms in nearly all branches of the bacterial, protist and animal kingdoms have the ability to detect and respond to this geomagnetic field. In some animals – such as honey bees – the geomagnetic behavioral responses are as strong as the responses to light, odor or touch. Biologists have identified strong responses in vertebrates ranging from fish, amphibians, reptiles, numerous birds and a diverse variety of mammals including whales, rodents, bats, cows and dogs – the last of which can be trained to find a hidden bar magnet. In all of these cases, the animals are using the geomagnetic field as components of their homing and navigation abilities, along with other cues like sight, smell and hearing.

Skeptics dismissed early reports of these responses, largely because there didn't seem to be a biophysical mechanism that could translate the Earth's weak geomagnetic field into strong neural signals. This view was dramatically changed by the discovery that living cells have the ability to build nanocrystals of the ferromagnetic mineral magnetite – basically, tiny iron magnets. Biogenic crystals of magnetite were first seen in the teeth of one group of mollusks, later in bacteria, and then in a variety of other organisms ranging from protists and animals such as insects, fish and mammals, including within tissues of the human brain.

Chains of magnetosomes from a sockeye salmon. Mann, Sparks, Walker & Kirschvink, 1988, CC BY-ND

Nevertheless, scientists haven't considered humans to be magnetically sensitive organisms.

Manipulating the magnetic field

Schematic drawing of the human magnetoreception test chamber at Caltech. Modified from 'Center of attraction' by C. Bickel (Hand, 2016).

In our new study, we asked 34 participants simply to sit in our testing chamber while we directly recorded electrical activity in their brains with electroencephalography (EEG). Our modified Faraday cage included a set of 3-axis coils that let us create controlled magnetic fields of high uniformity via electric current we ran through its wires. Since we live in mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, the environmental magnetic field in our lab dips downwards to the north at about 60 degrees from horizontal.

In normal life, when someone rotates their head – say, nodding up and down or turning the head from left to right – the direction of the geomagnetic field (which remains constant in space) will shift relative to their skull. This is no surprise to the subject's brain, as it directed the muscles to move the head in the appropriate fashion in the first place.

Study participants sat in the experimental chamber facing north, while the downwards-pointing field rotated clockwise (blue arrow) from northwest to northeast or counterclockwise (red arrow) from northeast to northwest. Magnetic Field Laboratory, Caltech, CC BY-ND

In our experimental chamber, we can move the magnetic field silently relative to the brain, but without the brain having initiated any signal to move the head. This is comparable to situations when your head or trunk is passively rotated by somebody else, or when you're a passenger in a vehicle which rotates. In those cases, though, your body will still register vestibular signals about its position in space, along with the magnetic field changes – in contrast, our experimental stimulation was only a magnetic field shift. When we shifted the magnetic field in the chamber, our participants did not experience any obvious feelings.

The EEG data, on the other hand, revealed that certain magnetic field rotations could trigger strong and reproducible brain responses. One EEG pattern known from existing research, called alpha-ERD (event-related desynchronization), typically shows up when a person suddenly detects and processes a sensory stimulus. The brains were “concerned" with the unexpected change in the magnetic field direction, and this triggered the alpha-wave reduction. That we saw such alpha-ERD patterns in response to simple magnetic rotations is powerful evidence for human magnetoreception.

Video shows the dramatic, widespread drop in alpha wave amplitude (deep blue color on leftmost head) following counterclockwise rotations. No drop is observed after clockwise rotation or in the fixed condition. Connie Wang, Caltech

Our participants' brains only responded when the vertical component of the field was pointing downwards at about 60 degrees (while horizontally rotating), as it does naturally here in Pasadena, California. They did not respond to unnatural directions of the magnetic field – such as when it pointed upwards. We suggest the response is tuned to natural stimuli, reflecting a biological mechanism that has been shaped by natural selection.

Other researchers have shown that animals' brains filter magnetic signals, only responding to those that are environmentally relevant. It makes sense to reject any magnetic signal that is too far away from the natural values because it most likely is from a magnetic anomaly - a lighting strike, or lodestone deposit in the ground, for example. One early report on birds showed that robins stop using the geomagnetic field if the strength is more than about 25 percent different from what they were used to. It's possible this tendency might be why previous researchers had trouble identifying this magnetic sense – if they cranked up the strength of the magnetic field to “help" subjects detect it, they might have instead ensured that subjects' brains ignored it.

Moreover, our series of experiments show that the receptor mechanism – the biological magnetometer in human beings – is not electrical induction, and can tell north from south. This latter feature rules out completely the so-called “quantum compass" or “cryptochrome" mechanism which is popular these days in the animal literature on magnetoreception. Our results are consistent only with functional magnetoreceptor cells based on the biological magnetite hypothesis. Note that a magnetite-based system can also explain all of the behavioral effects in birds that promoted the rise of the quantum compass hypothesis.

Brains register magnetic shifts, subconsciously

Our participants were all unaware of the magnetic field shifts and their brain responses. They felt that nothing had happened during the whole experiment – they'd just sat alone in dark silence for an hour. Underneath, though, their brains revealed a wide range of differences. Some brains showed almost no reaction, while other brains had alpha waves that shrank to half their normal size after a magnetic field shift.

It remains to be seen what these hidden reactions might mean for human behavioral capabilities. Do the weak and strong brain responses reflect some kind of individual differences in navigational ability? Can those with weaker brain responses benefit from some kind of training? Can those with strong brain responses be trained to actually feel the magnetic field?

A human response to Earth-strength magnetic fields might seem surprising. But given the evidence for magnetic sensation in our animal ancestors, it might be more surprising if humans had completely lost every last piece of the system. Thus far, we've found evidence that people have working magnetic sensors sending signals to the brain – a previously unknown sensory ability in the subconscious human mind. The full extent of our magnetic inheritance remains to be discovered.The Conversation

Shinsuke Shimojo, Gertrude Baltimore Professor of Experimental Psychology, California Institute of Technology; Daw-An Wu, , California Institute of Technology, and Joseph Kirschvink, Nico and Marilyn Van Wingen Professor of Geobiology, California Institute of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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